"Do you have any e-books?"
The guy at the bookstore's information desk looked at me strangely.
"You mean books about the Internet?"
"No, electronic books," I told him. "You know, books you can download into your computer."
His quizzical look disappeared. He shook his head.
"No, but we probably will in the future."
That future could be sooner than most of us realize.
Last week Amazon.com announced it has teamed up with Microsoft Corp. to get involved in the e-book business. Other publishers and software companies, such as Barnes & Noble and Adobe, are also positioning themselves for what appears to be a new e-book market expected to emerge after the commercial success of Stephen King's e-novel, "Riding the Bullet."
Readers on the horizon
And that means we'll not only see more e-books available at bookstores, but we also might start seeing new sorts of book-like devices to use to read them.
Right now, most people who order digital books read them with special software on a PC, a laptop, a Palm Pilot-like device or on the Web.
But it's just a matter of time until we see inexpensive, lightweight and legible e-book readers popping up all over the place.
They might become almost as common as a wireless phone, a VCR or a Sony Walkman.
What's out there now?
A few companies have been trying to develop a true electronic book reader that will let users read novels and textbooks, as well as their favorite magazines and newspapers.
A search of the Web last week turned up two such e-book readers.
The Rocket eBook Pro by NuvoMedia, Mountain View, Calif., (http://www.rocketebook.com" target="new">www.rocketebook.- com) caught my eye, mainly because of the name and the price.
The Rocket eBook, aimed at the person who likes to read novels, costs $269.
It weighs 22 ounces. Its screen size is 5 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches, about the size of a paperback novel page. You turn pages with the touch of a button.
Besides downloading e-books into the reader through a phone line, you can also sign up for subscriptions to the New York Times and other publications.
One of the nice features is that you can adjust the type size. And you can underline passages or set up bookmarks. It also has a built-in dictionary.
A higher-end reader, which is geared more for the professional or for college students, is the SoftBook Reader, which sells for about $590.
A library at your fingertips
From the sales pitches being made by manufacturers of e-book readers, the advantages of the new e-book readers boil down to two things storage and cost.
Rather than carrying 30 pounds of books around campus all day in a backpack, you can store all books, documents, newspapers and magazines in one lightweight device.
The Rocket eBook can store about 40 novels. And the SoftBook Reader can store 100,000 pages with an optional memory card.
And it's more likely that you'll never have the experience of being told that the bookstore is out of the textbook you need.
E-book readers should only get better.
The ones out now are only the first generation of e-book readers. Just as wireless phones have become smaller, we can probably expect e-book readers to undergo similar transformations.
Who knows? Maybe sometime next spring students will be studying for finals outside on a blanket with a SoftBook.
Or maybe you'll be reading Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" on your Rocket eBook.